Understanding Nazi Animal Protection and the Holocaust

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DOI: 10.2752/089279392787011638
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It is well known that the Nazis treated human beings with extreme cruelty but it less widely recognized that the Nazis also took some pains to develop and pass extensive animal protection laws. How could the Nazis have professed such concern for animals while treating humans so badly? It would be easy to dismiss Nazi proclamations on animals as mere hypocrisy but there may be other explanations for the contradiction. For example, anecdotal reports and psychological evaluations of many prominent Nazis suggest they felt affection for animals but dislike of humans. Second, animal protection measures, whether sincere or not, may have been a legal veil to attack Jews and others considered undesirable. Third, the Nazis blurred moral distinctions between animals and people and tended to treat members of even the Master Race as animals at times. This article argues that at the core of the Nazi treatment of humans and animals was a reconstitution of society's boundaries and margins. All human cultures seek to protect what is perceived to be pure from that which is seen to be dangerous and polluting and most societies establish fairly clear boundaries between people and animals. In Nazi Germany, however, human identity was not contaminated by including certain animal traits but certain peoples were considered to be a very real danger to Aryan purity.
6ANTHROZOÖS, Volume V, Number 1 Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax
Arnold Arluke1 and Boria Sax2
Abstract. It is well known that the Nazis
treated human beings with extreme cruelty
but it less widely recognized that the Nazis
also took some pains to develop and pass
extensive animal protection laws. How
could the Nazis have professed such con-
cern for animals while treating humans so
badly? It would be easy to dismiss Nazi
proclamations on animals as mere hypoc-
risy but there may be other explanations
for the contradiction. For example, anec-
dotal reports and psychological evalua-
tions of many prominent Nazis suggest
they felt affection for animals but dislike of
humans. Second, animal protection mea-
sures, whether sincere or not, may have
been a legal veil to attack Jews and others
considered undesirable. Third, the Nazis
blurred moral distinctions between ani-
mals and people and tended to treat mem-
bers of even the Master Race as animals at
times. This article argues that at the core of
the Nazi treatment of humans and animals
was a reconstitution of society’s bound-
aries and margins. All human cultures seek
to protect what is perceived to be pure
from that which is seen to be dangerous
and polluting and most societies establish
fairly clear boundaries between people
and animals. In Nazi Germany, however,
human identity was not contaminated by
including certain animal traits but certain
peoples were considered to be a very real
danger to Aryan purity.
It is well known that the Nazis treated
human beings with extreme cruelty. Grisly
“medical” experiments on humans have
been carefully documented and analyzed
(e.g., Lifton 1986) as has the cold, calcu-
lated extermination of millions of people
in the Holocaust (e.g., Hilberg 1961). Less
well known are the extensive measures
taken by Nazis to ensure the humane care
and protection of animals. How could the
Nazis have been so concerned about cru-
elty to animals while they treated people
so inhumanely? It would be easy to dis-
miss the apparently benevolent Nazi atti-
tude toward animals as “hypocrisy,” but
this would be a facile way of evading an
examination of the psychological and so-
cial dynamics of Nazi thinking and behav-
ior. Rather than questioning the authentic-
ity of the motivations behind Nazi animal
protection—a question that is unanswer-
able—it may be more useful to ask how
such thinking was possible and what sig-
nificance it had.
We offer three explanations for this con-
tradiction. First, at a personal or psycho-
logical level, this behavior may not seem
so contradictory because anecdotal re-
ports and psychological assessments of
many prominent Nazi political and mili-
tary leaders suggest they felt affection and
regard for animals but enmity and distance
toward humans. While love of animals
is itself considered an admirable quality,
under the Nazis it may have obscured
1 Department of Sociology and Anthropology, North-east-
ern University, Boston, MA 02115.
2 Department of Modern Languages, Pace University, White
Plains, NY 10603.
Nazi Animal Protection and the Holocaust ANTHROZOÖS, Volume V, Number 1 7
brutality toward human beings, both on
the personal and the political level, what-
ever its roots were. Second, animal protec-
tion measures, whether sincere or not,
may have been a legal veil to level an at-
tack on the Jews. In making this attack, the
Nazis allied themselves with animals since
both were portrayed as victims of “oppres-
sors” such as Jews. Third, the Nazis abol-
ished moral distinctions between animals
and people by viewing people as animals.
The result was that animals could be con-
sidered “higher” than some people. All
three of these explanations argue for a
culture where it was possible to increase
the moral status of animals and decrease
the moral status of some humans by blur-
ring the boundaries between humans and
animals, making it possible for National
Socialists to rationalize their behavior and
to disenfranchise large groups of humans.
Although our analysis assumes a posi-
tion of analytic detachment, this stance
should not be read as an excusing of Nazi
behavior. Our analysis of the Nazi move-
ment has far-reaching ethical implications,
but these are largely beyond the scope of
this paper. We believe, in this instance,
that moral concern is best channeled into
understanding; indeed, a highly moralistic
discussion might obscure the dynamics of
the National Socialist movement.
Nazi Animal Protection
Around the end of the nineteenth century,
kosher butchering and vivisection were
the foremost concerns of the animal pro-
tection movement in Germany (Hoelscher
1949; Neff 1989; Trohler and Maehle
1987). These concerns continued during
the Third Reich and became formalized as
laws. On April 21, 1933, almost immedi-
ately after the Nazis came to power, they
passed a set of laws regulating the slaugh-
ter of animals. At the start of 1933, the
Nazi representatives to the Prussian parlia-
ment met in order to ban vivisection (Proc-
tor 1988). In August, 1933, over German
radio Hermann Göring announced an end
to the “unbearable torture and suffering in
animal experiments” and threatened to
“commit to concentration camps those
who still think they can continue to treat
animals as inanimate property” (Göring
1939, 70, 72). Göring decried the “cruel”
experiments of unfeeling scientists whose
animals were operated on, burned, or fro-
zen without anesthetics. A ban on vivisec-
tion was enacted in Bavaria as well as
Prussia (AMA 1933), although the Nazis
then partially retreated from a full ban. The
Nazi animal protection laws of November,
1933, permitted experiments on animals
in some circumstances, but subject to a set
of eight conditions and only with the ex-
plicit permission of the Minister of the In-
terior, supported by the recommendation
of local authorities. The conditions were
designed to eliminate pain and prevent
unnecessary experiments. Horses, dogs,
cats, and apes were singled out for special
protection. Permission to experiment on
animals was given not to individuals but
only to institutions (Giese and Kahler
Inconspicuously buried in the animal
protection laws of November, 1933 (point
four, section two), was a provision for the
“mercy killing” of animals. The law not
only allowed but actually required that
domesticated animals that were old, sick,
and worn out, or for which “life has be-
come a torment,” be “painlessly” put to
death. The wording of the provision was
ambiguous; it was not entirely clear
whether a family would be required to kill,
say, an old dog that did nothing but sit by
the fire. One binding commentary, passed
immediately after the laws themselves,
mandated that an expert should decide
whether further life for an animal was a
8ANTHROZOÖS, Volume V, Number 1 Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax
“torment” in unclear cases (Giese and
Kahler 1944).
In addition to the laws against vivisec-
tion and kosher slaughter, scores of addi-
tional legal measures regulating the treat-
ment of animals were enacted from 1933
through 1943, probably several times the
number in the preceding half century
(Giese and Kahler 1944). These covered in
excruciating detail a vast array of concerns
from the shoeing of horses to the use of
anesthesia. One law passed in 1936
showed “particular solicitude” (Waite
1947, 41) about the suffering of lobsters
and crabs, stipulating that restaurants were
to kill crabs, lobsters, and other crusta-
ceans by throwing them one at a time into
rapidly boiling water (Giese and Kahler
1944). Several “high officials” had debated
the question of the most humane death for
lobsters before this regulation was passed,
and two officials in the Interior Ministry
had prepared a scholarly treatise on the
subject (Waite 1977).
The Nazis also sought to protect wild-
life. In 1934 and 1935, the focus of Nazi
legislation on animals shifted from farm
animals and pets to creatures of the wild.
The preface to the hunting laws of March
27, 1935, announced a eugenic purpose
behind the legislation, stating, “The duty of
a true hunter is not only to hunt but also to
nurture and protect wild animals, in order
that a more varied, stronger and healthier
breed shall emerge and be preserved”
(Giese and Kahler 1944). Nazi veterinary
journals often featured reports on endan-
gered species (Proctor 1988). Göring, in
particular, was concerned about the near
extinction in Germany of bear, bison, and
wild horse, and sought to establish conser-
vation and breeding programs for dwin-
dling species and to pass new and more
uniform hunting laws and taxes (Irving
1989, 181). Göring’s Game Laws are still
operative today.
A uniform national hunting association
was created to regulate the sport, restock
lakes, tend forests, and protect dying spe-
cies. Taxes levied on hunters would be
used for the upkeep of forests and game
parks. Göring also established three nature
reserves, introduced elk, and began a bi-
son sanctuary with two pure bulls and
seven hybrid cows on one of the reserves
(Irving 1989, 182). He eventually suc-
ceeded in rearing 47 local bison. He also
created a Game Research Laboratory,
where he reintroduced night owl, wood
grouse, heathcock, gray goose, raven, bea-
ver, and otter, which Albert Speer (1970,
555) referred to as “Göring’s animal para-
dise.” Göring viewed forests almost in reli-
gious terms, calling them “God’s cathe-
drals,” and culling of game populations to
prevent starvation or epidemics was con-
ducted as a “pseudo-religious duty” (Irving
1989, 182).
The Nazi animal protection laws, for-
mulated with considerable medical and
legal sophistication, were characterized by
an almost compulsive attention to detail.
While bureaucratic thoroughness may
have been the major driving force behind
these documents, they also extended the
scope of legal control far beyond the
boundaries of human society by attempt-
ing a centralized regulation of all relation-
ships, not only among people but through-
out the natural world. The purpose of the
Law for the Protection of Animals, as noted
in its introduction, was “to awaken and
strengthen compassion as one of the high-
est moral values of the German people”
(Giese and Kahler 1944; Waite 1977, 41).
The philosophical basis for the laws was
the attempt to minimize pain, according to
one doctoral dissertation written primarily
during the Nazi period (Hoelscher 1949).
The fact that animals were to be protected
for their own sakes, rather than for their
relationship to humanity, was described as
Nazi Animal Protection and the Holocaust ANTHROZOÖS, Volume V, Number 1 9
a new legal concept (Giese and Kahler
1944; Hoelscher 1949; Meyer 1975).
Like virtually all legal documents, these
laws contained ambiguities and possible
loopholes. In many respects, the laws of
November, 1933, did not go far beyond
the laws protecting animals in Britain, then
considered the most comprehensive in the
world. The severity of the punishments
mandated by the German laws was, how-
ever, virtually unprecedented in modern
times. “Rough mistreatment” of an animal
could result in a punishment of two years
in prison plus a fine (Giese and Kahler
It is not clear, however, how vigorously
or conscientiously the animal protection
laws were enforced, particularly outside of
Prussia. Barnard (1990) maintains that sev-
eral experiments on animals were con-
ducted secretly by Nazi doctors. Hilberg
(1961, 600–604) also describes several
Nazi medical experiments on animals that
preceded those on human beings. At any
rate, Nazi Germany gradually became a
state where petty theft could result in
death, while violent crimes might go un-
punished. Punishment did not fit the crime
in any traditional sense. The new govern-
ment retained the entire legal apparatus of
the Weimar Republic but used it in the
service of a different concept. In accor-
dance with declarations by Hitler, for ex-
ample, the laws of July 2, 1934, on “Mea-
sures for Protection of the State” provided
that punishment was to be determined not
by the crime itself but by the “fundamental
idea” behind the crime (Staff 1964). Mis-
treatment of animals, then, might be taken
by courts as evidence of a fundamentally
antisocial mentality or even of Jewish
The preoccupation with animal protec-
tion in Nazi Germany was evident in other
social institutions and continued almost
until the end of World War II. In 1934, the
new government hosted an international
conference on animal protection in Berlin.
Over the speakers’ podium, surrounded by
enormous swastikas, were the words “En-
tire epochs of love will be needed to repay
animals for their value and service”
(Meyer 1975). In 1936, the German Soci-
ety for Animal Psychology was founded,
and in 1938 animal protection was ac-
cepted as a subject to be studied in Ger-
man public schools and universities. In
1943 an academic program in animal psy-
chology was inaugurated at the Hannover
School of Veterinary Medicine (Giese and
Kahler 1944).
The Ideological and Historical
Though it appeared politically monolithic,
the Nazi movement contained a surpris-
ingly wide range of intellectual opinions.
The leaders, in general, showed little inter-
est in abstract theory, and only Alfred
Rosenberg even attempted to synthesize
Nazism into a cohesive set of doctrines.
One cannot, therefore, understand the
movement as though it were centered
around an abstract philosophy, searching
for more formal kinds of logic and coher-
ence. Nazism was far more a cluster of
loosely associated concerns. Even leading
National Socialists avoided committing
themselves on the subject of ideology,
emphasizing that in its totality, National
Socialism was indefinable (Fest 1970).
Nevertheless, the National Socialists at-
tempted to actualize a racial ideology and,
in so doing, to create a new Germanic
identity (Mosse 1966). The search for Ger-
man national character certainly did not
start during the Third Reich. The enormous
anxiety and preoccupation of the Nazis
over national identity and differentiation
from other human groups was only a
heightened version of Germany’s long
10 ANTHROZOÖS, Volume V, Number 1 Arnold Arluke and Boria Sax
obsession with its identity and its bound-
aries from other human groups and its re-
lationship with animals. Essential to this
construction of national identity were cer-
tain themes regarding man’s connections
to nature and animal life that were articu-
lated in German romantic poetry, music,
and social thought. These ideas shaped
Nazi thinking and served as intellectual
resources that were drawn upon and dis-
torted as expedient.
Man as Beast. One influential theme, par-
ticularly evident in the work of Friedrich
Nietzsche, was the rejection of intellectual
culture and reason and the praising of ani-
mal instinct in man. This view attached
enormous importance to the animal origin
and character of man. It sought to cel-
ebrate the earth and beasts in mythical
ways and to glorify Nietzsche’s “blond
beast” or “raubtier,”1 playing up the beast
in man as a type of “secret idol,” possess-
ing qualities of vitality, unscrupulousness,
and blind will and obedience (Glaser
1978, 138).
Nietzsche was one of several heroes
under Nazism whose work was distorted
to become more brutal and aggressive,
particularly his conception of the “blond
beast.” Glaser calls this element of Na-
tional Socialism “man as predator.” “The
domestic animal who had been domesti-
cated on the surface only was in the end
superior to and more honest than man; in
the predator one could ‘rediscover his in-
stincts and with that his honesty’” (Glaser
1978, 138). Animal instinct came to repre-
sent rebellion against culture and intellec-
tualism. Returning to the animal nature
within man, communing with nature, and
elevating animal life to the level of cult
worship were seen as alternatives to mo-
dernity, technology, and urbanization, ac-
cording to Glaser. Acceptance of this view,
it was thought, would lead to the spiritual
and ideological changes necessary and
desirable in German cultural life for a new
national self-identity to emerge (Gasman
As part of the rejection of culture, the
new German, according to National So-
cialist ideology, was to disavow humani-
tarian behavior toward fellow humans as
insincere. One element of this totalitarian
system was the principle of contempt for
certain human beings. Himmler, for ex-
ample, called for renouncing “softness”
(Fest 1970, 120). “False” comradeship and
compassion were derogated. Instead of
encouraging compassion, Hitler empha-
sized that the new German should emu-
late certain animal behaviors such as the
obedience and faithfulness of pets and the
strength, fearlessness, aggressiveness, and
even cruelty found in beasts of prey, quali-
ties that were among the movement’s most
stringent principles (Fest 1970, 120, 293).
The training of SS personnel illustrated
the importance of these animal qualities,
even if it ironically meant killing animals.
It is alleged that after 12 weeks of working
closely with a German shepherd, each SS
soldier had to break his dog’s neck in front
of an officer in order to earn his stripes.
Doing so, it was thought, would instill
teamwork, discipline, and obedience to
the Führer—qualities that were deemed
more important than feelings for anything,
including animals (Radde 1991).
Hitler himself pleaded for these quali-
ties in German youth: “I want violent, im-
perious, fearless, cruel young people…
The free, magnificent beast of prey must
once again flash from their eyes…I want
youth strong and beautiful…, and athletic
youth… In this way I shall blot out thou-
sands of years of human domestication. I
shall have the pure, noble stuff of nature”
(Maltitz 1973, 62). In another instance,
Hitler called for German youth to be as
“swift as whippets” (Grunberger 1971,
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